Since I started working in the retail wine industry, I’ve had a lot of surprises — both pleasant and unpleasant (but that’s a post for another day). One of the biggest has been the number of people who ask specifically for organic wine. I’m not always sure people know exactly what that means, though. Organic wine is still a niche market in the US (somewhere around 2% of sales by value), but it is growing.
As a wine consumer, I’ve never bought a wine just because it was organic. That said, I do think sustainable and organic practices bear some responsibility for high quality wines.
A couple of weeks ago, I received some samples from Peju Winery in Napa Valley. I started doing a little research, and learned that Peju has been getting a fair amount of press lately for its green initiatives. The winery has 720 solar panels on its roof, which supply 35% of the winery’s energy. And all 232 planted acres of their estate vineyards in Rutherford, Oak Knoll, Calistoga, and Pope Valley are sustainably farmed. The Rutherford estate vineyard, in particular, has been converted to organic farming.
What does all of that mean? (By now, you know you can always count on me for a good tangent in a blog post.)
Sustainable is the easy one — there are no set standards or formal certifications involved. Sustainability is sensitive to both the environment and the community. Sustainable practices allow for minimal chemical interventions when necessary. At its core, sustainability means being a good steward of the land.
Organic is where things get a little confusing. In the United States, organic means two different things with regard to wine:
- Organic wine (a wine made from organically grown grapes with no added sulfites). 100% sulfite-free wines don’t exist — because small amounts of sulfites are found naturally on grape skins.
- Wine “made with organically grown grapes” (a wine made from organically grown grapes, but up to 100mg/L of added sulfites are allowed).
Organic wines are certified (with a fancy organic seal ➡︎) by the USDA, and they are subject to strict regulations. The grapes must be organically grown, and all of the ingredients that go into the wines (stuff like yeast) must be certified organic. Sulfites cannot be added to these wines, but those that occur naturally are permitted.
If you want to know if your favorite wine(ry) is certified organic, you can check the USDA Organic Integrity Database here.
People are super concerned about sulfites (SO2). But sulfites protect wine from going bad. Also, they aren’t responsible for your red wine headache (that’s alcohol, friends). Sulfites are mostly harmless, unless you have severe asthma, or lack a particular enzyme necessary to break down sulfites in your body, but that’s pretty rare. The FDA estimates that less than 1% of the US population is sulfite-sensitive. Good to know: There are more sulfites in white wine than red wine. And more sulfites in french fries than wine. And if you’re a fan of dried fruits? Sulfur city.
And while there aren’t that many USDA certified organic wines on shelves, there are a lot of organic vineyards. These wines can state on their labels that they are “made with organic grapes”, but they can’t use the USDA certified organic seal.
Organic viticulture doesn’t use anything manmade — no fertilizers, or any of the “cides” (herbicides, fungicides, pesticides). Organic viticulture uses strategies like canopy management to prevent, rather than treat, pests and diseases.
To make this even more exciting (er, confusing), the US and the EU have different definitions for “organic wine”:
- US: Organic = a wine made from organically grown grapes with no added sulfites.
- EU: Organic = a wine made from organically grown grapes that may contain up to 100mg/L for red wines, and 150mg/L for whites.
In 2012, the EU allowed winemakers to use the term “organic wine” on their labels. Prior to that, wines had to be labeled as “made from organic grapes” which is how the US labels wines with added sulfites.
Let’s taste some wines.
2018 Sauvignon Blanc ⭐️⭐️⭐️/89
100% Sauvignon Blanc. Harvested in three stages of flavor development, picking at different levels of ripeness. Cold fermented in stainless steel. The nose is a little shy, but the palate is all California Sauvignon Blanc. Loads of citrus and minerals, laced with an herbal backbone of acidity. 13.8% ABV. Retail = $25.
2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ⭐️⭐️⭐️/89
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, and 7% Merlot, sourced from three different vineyards (Tess, Persephone, and Wappo). Aged for 18 months in 45% new French and American oak. Deep ruby, inching toward purple color. Black fruits, cedar, cocoa, and graphite. Nicely balanced, smooth, rich tannins. 14.8% ABV. Retail = $60.
2016 Merlot ⭐️⭐️⭐️/88
95% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Sirah, sourced from two different vineyards (Rutherford and Persephone). Miles (the Sideways effect) was straight-up wrong. Merlot is delicious. Elegant and smooth. Deep ruby color. Cherry and chocolate flavors up front, trailed by warm baking spices. 15% ABV. Retail = $48.
2017 The Experiment ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/91
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Persephone vineyard. This Cabernet is winemaker Sara Fowler’s yearly barrel experiment. This year, she chose 37 different barrel toasting styles and 22 different coopers. The wines was aged for 16 months in 100% new French, American and Hungarian oak. There’s a lot of oak ribbons running through this wine, but each one manages to add to the overall perception of the wine, but not overwhelm it. Soft, jammy black fruits on the palate. Plush, ripe tannins, medium acidity. 14.5% ABV. Retail = $100.00
2013 Petit Trois ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/92
100% Cabernet Franc, sourced from three different vineyards (Rutherford, Wappo and Persephone). Aged for 18 months. Rich, red and black fruit flavors (black currant, cherry, blueberry) lead down a path toward cedar and cigar box. Full bodied, this is is no shrinking-violet wine. Great demonstration of what Cab Franc can achieve in Napa. Love this. 14.8% ABV. Retail = $75.
2015 The Farm ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/92
Part of the nostalgia series, and an exclusive wine club offering. Each label showcases a different vintage photo of the Peju property. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Sangiovese, sourced from three different vineyards (Rutherford, Persephone, and Tess). I am seriously loving this blend. It’s like a mullet — business (Cab) in the front, party (Sangiovese) in the back. Black and red fruits with gorgeous, ripe tannins, and a core of acidity. Would love to revisit this in a handful of years. 15.1% ABV. Retail = $80.
Bottomline: Some really excellent wines from a sustainable/organically farmed producer. Are these wines so good because they’re made with sustainable and organically farmed grapes? I’m starting to think so.